SANTA ANA – One of two teenage hikers rescued during a four-day search of the rugged terrain around Holy Jim Canyon earlier this year pleaded guilty Friday to drug possession and was ordered to complete a drug-diversion program.
Superior Court Judge Gerald Johnston issued the order for Nicolas Cendoya, 20, after finding that neither the Orange County Fire Authority nor a searcher who suffered major injuries qualified as victims in the case under Marsy’s Law, the victims bill of rights passed by California voters in 2008.
The fire authority and Nick Papageorge’s IV, 20, of Rancho Santa Margarita, who broke his back when he tumbled down a 110-foot cliff and had to undergo several surgeries, were seeking restitution from Cendoya under that law.
Cendoya faced a sentence ranging from probation to three years in jail. By law, he was eligible for the drug-diversion program, prosecutors said. If he completes it successfully, his plea will be set aside and the case dismissed.
Lawyers for Papageorge’s IV and the fire authority were unsuccessful in arguing that their clients were victims and should get restitution.
“This particular crime was not victimless,” Robert Kaufman, attorney for the fire authority, told Johnston. “Papageorge’s knows that, the people of the county know that.”
“I just can’t find that this crime was committed against either” of them, Johnston concluded after listening to arguments from all sides.
But he prefaced his comments by saying he did not want the “tragedy suffered” by Papageorge’s to be lost in the legal arguments, saying there was a very real human element to the case.
He called Papageorge’s actions “selfless” and the injuries he sustained as possibly derailing his future aspirations.
“There’s a lot of tragedy surrounding this case,” Johnston said.
Papageorge’s’ attorney, Eric Dubin, said afterward he will continue to seek justice for his client.
“We have a true hero … my job today was to ensure that he receives justice and that quest does not end today,” Dubin said.
After several surgeries and more than $350,000 in medical expenses, Papageorge’s has two titanium rods and 11 metal screws and pins in his back from when he fell in Holy Jim Canyon on April 3.
The four-day search effort garnered national media attention and required more than 1,900 man-hours before rescuers found Kyndall Jack, 18, and Cendoya, who had walked into the wilderness near the canyon on Easter Sunday.
Both were found alive – although dazed and dehydrated – after the massive search by sheriff’s deputies, firefighters and volunteers. It was during the search that deputies found methamphetamine in Cendoya’s vehicle, which led to the felony charge.
Authorities say the rescue effort cost an estimated $160,000, as personnel from the Orange, Riverside and Los Angeles county sheriff’s departments and the Orange County Fire Authority were involved.
Orange County Supervisor Todd Spitzer attended Friday’s court hearing and said afterward that the judge’s “ruling sends a message to anybody engaged in unlawful activity that they can engage in that unlawful activity and have Orange County Fire Authority rescue them and not be held accountable for their illegal and reckless behavior.”
Cendoya’s attorney, Paul Meyer, said the judge made the right call.
“The law is clear and we’ll be complying,” Meyer said.
Register Staff Writer Larry Welborn contributed to this report.
By VIK JOLLY / ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER
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